Extension Toxicology Network

Toxicology Information Briefs

A Pesticide Information Project of Cooperative Extension Offices of Cornell University, Oregon State University, the University of Idaho, and the University of California at Davis and the Institute for Environmental Toxicology, Michigan State University. Major support and funding was provided by the USDA/Extension Service/National Agricultural Pesticide Impact Assessment Program.

EXTOXNET primary files maintained and archived at Oregon State University

Revised 9/93.



Chemicals released into the environment may have a variety of adverse ecological effects. Ranging from fish and wildlife kills to forest decline, ecological effects can be long-term or short-lived changes in the normal functioning of an ecosystem, resulting in economic, social, and aesthetic losses. These potential effects are an important reason for regulation of pesticides, toxic substances, and other sources of pollution.


The physical environment along with the organisms (biota) inhabiting that space, make up an ecosystem. Some typical examples of ecosystems include: a farm pond, a mountain meadow, and a rain forest.

An ecosystem follows a certain sequence of processes and events through the days, seasons, and years. The processes include not only the birth, growth, reproduction, and death of biota in that particular ecosystem, but also the interactions between species and physical characteristics of the geological environment. From these processes the ecosystem gains a recognizable structure and function, and matter and energy are cycled and flow through the system. Over time, better adapted species come to dominate; entirely new species may change, perhaps in a new or altered ecosystem.


The basic level of ecological organization is with the individual, a single plant, insect or bird. The definition of ecology is based on the interactions of organisms with their environment. In the case of an individual, it would entail the relationships between that individual and numerous physical (rain, sun, wind, temperature, nutrients, etc.) and biological (other plants, insects, diseases, animals, etc.) factors. The next level of organization is the population. Populations are no more than a collection of individuals of the same species within an area or region. We can see populations of humans, birch trees, or sunfish in a pond. Population ecology is concerned with the interaction of the individuals with each other and with their environment.

The next, more complex, level of organization is the community. Communities are made up of different populations of interacting plants, animals, and microorganisms also within some defined geographic area. Different populations within a community interact more among themselves than with populations of the same species in other communities, therefore, there are often genetic differences between members of two different communities. The populations in a community have evolved together, so that members of that community provide resources (nutrition, shelter) for each other.

The next level of organization is the ecosystem. An ecosystem consist of different communities of organisms associated within a physically defined space. For example, a forest ecosystem consists of animal and plant communities in the soil, forest floor, and forest canopy, along the stream bank and bottom, and in the stream. A stream bottom community, for example, will have various fungi and bacteria living on dead leaves and animal wastes, protozoans and microscopic invertebrates feeding on these microbes, and larger invertebrates (worms, crayfish) and vertebrates (turtles, catfish). Each community functions somewhat separately, but are also linked to the others by the forest, rainfall, and other interactions. For example, the stream community is heavily dependent upon leaves produced in the surrounding trees falling into the stream, feeding the microbes and other invertebrates. For another example, the rainfall and groundwater flow in a surrounding forest community greatly affects the amount and quality of water entering the stream or lake system.

Terrestrial ecosystems can be grouped into units of similar nature, termed biomes (such as a "deciduous forest," "grassland," "coniferous forest," etc.), or into a geographic unit, termed landscapes, containing several different types of ecosystems. Aquatic ecosystems are commonly categorized on the basis of whether the water is moving (streams, river basins) or still (ponds, lakes, large lakes) and whether the water is fresh, salty (oceans), or brackish (estuaries). Landscapes and biomes (and large lakes, river basins, and oceans) are subject to global threats of pollution (acid deposition, stratospheric ozone depletion, air pollution, the greenhouse effect) and human activities (soil erosion, deforestation).


While many natural forces -- drought, fire, flood, frost or species migration -- can affect it, an ecosystem will usually continue to function in a recognizable way. For instance, a pond ecosystem may go through flood or drought but continues to be a pond. This natural resilience of ecosystems enables them to resist change and recover quickly from disruption. On the other hand, toxic pollutants and other non-natural phenomena can overwhelm the natural stability of an ecosystem and result in irreversible changes and serious losses, as illustrated by the following examples:

Each of these pollutant-caused losses has altered ecosystem processes and components and thus affected aesthetic and commercial value of an ecosystem. Usually, adverse ecological effects take place over long period of time or even at some distance from the point of release of a chemical. For example, DDT, though banned for use in the United States for over twenty years, is still entering the Great Lakes ecosystem through rainfall and dust from sources half way around the world. The long-term effects and overall impacts of new and existing chemicals on ecosystems can only be partially evaluated by current laboratory testing procedures. Nevertheless, through field studies and careful monitoring of chemical use and biological outcome, it is possible to evaluate the short-term and long-term effects of pesticides and other chemicals.


Scientists are most concerned about the effects of chemicals and other pollutants on communities. Short-term and temporary effects are much more easily measured than long-term effects of pollutants on ecosystem communities. Understanding the impact of effects requires knowledge of the time course and variability of these short-term changes.

Pollutants may adversely affect communities by disrupting their normal structure and delicate interdependencies. The structure of a community includes its physical system, usually created by the plant life and geological processes, as well as the relationships between its populations of biota.

For example, a pollutant may eliminate a species essential to the functioning of the entire community; it may promote the dominance of undesirable species (weeds, trash fish); or it may simply decrease the numbers and variety of species present in the community. It may also disrupt the dynamics of the food webs in the community by breaking existing dietary linkages between species. Most of these adverse effects in communities can be measured through changes in productivity in the ecosystem. Under natural stresses (for example, unusual temperature and moisture conditions), the community may be unable to tolerate effects of a chemical otherwise causing no harm.

An important facet of biological communities is the number and intensity of interactions between species. These interactions make the community greater than simply the sum of its parts. The community is stronger than its populations, and the ecosystem is more stable than its communities. A seriously altered interaction may adversely affect all the species dependent on it. Even so, some ecosystem properties or functions (such as nutrient dynamics) can be altered by chemicals without apparent effects on populations or communities. Thus, an important part of research in ecological effects is concerned with the relative sensitivity of ecosystems, communities, and populations to chemicals and to physical stresses.

Consider the effects of spraying an orchard with an insecticide when bees and other beneficial insects may be present and vulnerable to the toxicant. This practice is both economically and ecologically unsound, since it would deprive all plants in the area of pollinators and disrupt control of plant pests by their natural enemies. Advanced agricultural practices, such as integrated pest management (IPM), avoid these adverse effects through appropriate timing and selection of sprays in conjunction with non-chemical approaches to insect control.

Effects of chemicals on communities can be measured in laboratory model ecosystem (microcosm) studies, in intermediate sized systems (mesocosms, engineered field systems, open-top plant chambers, field pens), and in full field trials. Thus, data gathered about effects of chemicals on processes and species can be evaluated in various complex situations that reflect the real world.


Most information on ecological effects has been obtained from studies on single species of biota. These tests have been performed in laboratories under controlled conditions and chemical exposures, usually with organisms reared in the laboratory representing inhabitants of natural systems. Most tests are short-term, single exposures (acute toxicity assays), but long-term (chronic) exposures are used as well. Although such tests reveal which chemicals are relatively more toxic, and which species are relatively more vulnerable to their effects, these tests do not disclose much about either the important interactions noted above or the role of the range of natural conditions faced by organisms in the environment.

Generally, the effects observed in these toxicity tests include reduced rates of survival or increased death rates; reduced growth and altered development; reduced reproductive capabilities, including birth defects; changes in body systems, including behavior; and genetic changes. Any of these effects can influence the ability of species to adapt and respond to other environmental stresses and community interactions.

Environmental toxicology studies performed on species in the laboratory provide the basis for much of the current regulation of pollutants and have allowed major improvements in environmental quality. However, these tests yield only a few clues to effects on more complex systems. Long-term studies and monitoring of ecological effects of new and existing chemicals released into the environment are needed in order to create understanding of potential adverse ecological effects and their consequences.


Adverse ecological effects from environmental pollutants occur at all levels of biological organization, but most information about these effects has been obtained with single species. The effects can be global or local, temporary or permanent, or short-lived (acute) or long-term (chronic). The most serious effects involve loss in production, changes in growth, development and/or behavior, altered diversity or community structure, changes in system processes (such as nutrient cycling), and losses of valuable species. These ecological losses in turn may be economically, aesthetically, or socially important. Hence, ecological effects are of serious concern in regulating pollutants and a variety of tests have been devised to help evaluate the potential for adverse ecological effects. Developing an understanding of how these tests and other information can be used to prevent environmental problems caused by pollutants is the basis for ecological risk assessment research.

DISCLAIMER: The information in this brief does not in any way replace or supersede the information on the pesticide product label/ing or other regulatory requirements. Please refer to the pesticide product label/ing.